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Posted: March 19, 2009

EU project to toughen up electronics for use in extreme environments

(Nanowerk News) A new EU-funded project is developing new materials for electronic devices and sensors that have to operate in extreme conditions. Dubbed MORGAN ('Materials for robust gallium nitride'), the three-year, EUR 9.2 million project is financed under the Nanosciences, nanotechnologies, materials & new production technologies (NMP) Theme of the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). The project partners will draw on the combined strengths of diamonds and gallium nitride (GaN) to create the new materials.
Conventional, silicon-based electronic devices and sensors do not function well under conditions that are damaging to silicon. Examples of harsh conditions include high temperatures, high pressures and highly corrosive environments. Conditions may also be harsh due to the internal workings of the device, for example as a consequence of power dissipation under high current flows.
Devices designed to work in these environments require semi-conductor materials that are stable at high temperatures, and this is where the MORGAN project comes in. The project partners will combine the special properties of diamonds and gallium nitride to create materials that will perform well in extreme environments. Both diamonds and gallium nitride are exceptionally durable (diamond is famously one of the hardest materials around) and can survive exposure to high temperatures, radiation and electric fields.
Another, less well-known property of diamond is its high thermal conductivity, which is far higher than that of copper, for example, and makes it ideal as a heat disperser in devices. 'Diamond is potentially the ultimate substrate for many high temperature or extreme power applications,' commented Geoffrey Scarsbrook, research and development operations manager at Element Six Technologies, one of the project partners.
'Element Six will use its expertise to further develop and optimise the synthesis and primary processing of silicon/polycrystalline diamond composite wafers,' added Steve Coe, general manager of Element Six Technologies.
Meanwhile, gallium nitride is renowned for its ability to handle high levels of power extremely efficiently.
Ultimately, the project partners hope that MORGAN will lead to the development of innovative composite substrates that combine diamond's excellent thermal conductivity with the electrical efficiency of gallium nitride.
According to the project partners, such materials will be essential for the next generation of efficient, long-distance power distribution systems that will be needed in a network made up of geographically dispersed renewable energy sources. They could also prove useful in other, currently rather inefficient electrical energy conversion systems, such as those used in trains.
The 23 MORGAN project partners come from 11 countries and include 13 research institutes, 6 SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises), 2 industrial laboratories and 2 large industrial partners. They have expertise in materials, electronics and metallisation for processing, device design modelling and packaging. The project is coordinated by Alcatel-Thales II-V lab, an industrial research laboratory that specialises in advanced semiconductor technologies for a range of applications.
Source: European Commission